The Three-Paragraph Introduction: An Alternative to the Research Paper
Three Paragraph Introduction: An alternative to writing a research paper
July 10, 2017
One goal of my interdisciplinary (but primarily social and natural science based) freshman proseminar is to develop the skills to identify a research question. A second goal is to help the students master college level writing skills. I have found that meeting these goals through the assignment of a traditional research paper is problematic for two reasons. First, students struggle to understand the difference between identifying a research gap and constructing a paper to fill the gap (e.g. are the environmental impacts of dams always negative?) and constructing a paper to argue a point (e.g. we should build fewer dams), let alone actually do the research. Second, even if formats for structuring a research paper are given, students often struggle with logical flows within and between paragraphs and sections. Third, it is problematic for students to learn from feedback unless they have opportunities to revise their papers at least once and preferably more times. Multiple revision is logistically difficult given the lengths of traditional papers and the nature of the semester.
To meet my class content goals and partly address these issues around writing, I created a shorter, iterative research and writing assignment that focuses primarily on setting up a research paper, rather than writing the whole paper. In essence, the core of the assignment is to write just a three paragraph introduction. While the assignment is backed up with two, 4-5 page “content” papers, they are designed primarily to help students engage with and mentally organize content rather than as writing assignments per se. In terms of writing, my feedback to students, their revisions and my grading are focused primarily on the 3 paragraph introduction.
The steps I follow to implement the assignment are:
- Relatively early in the semester, students are given background and instructions to the assignment, though there is nothing due for multiple weeks. The instructions are along these lines:
“A good introduction to a research paper can be as short as 3 paragraphs. It requires convincing people that your issue is important (paragraph 1), explaining what information gaps exist (paragraph 2), and demonstrating that your paper will at least partially fill one or more of those gaps and perhaps what your research found (paragraph 3). Writing paragraph 1 requires you to understand the context of your research. Writing paragraph 2 requires understanding the literature that has already been published. More explanation and discussion will occur over the course of the semester, but for now note that you will be asked to write and rewrite the paragraphs of your introduction as we move through the semester. Rewriting (again and again) is the key to a good paper.”
Over the early weeks of the semester we examine how the introductions of the academic papers we read in class are structured. Included in these readings are papers I wrote. We discuss how the papers conform or not to our in class discussions of what is needed in a good introduction.
- Student decides on general topic half way through the semester and turn in a paper title. We discuss everyone’s titles to draw out issues and share ideas.
- Students write a one paragraph introduction to their research paper as well as a 4-5 page background paper, with citations, that provides the context for their paragraph. The purpose of the background paper is to ensure that students are delving into the subject matter.
- Professor gives detailed feedback on the paragraph. The professor’s comments on the background paper are focused primarily on subject matter, though more general comments may be given on writing.
- Students write a second 4-5 page paper that examines the published literature on their subject and establishes a question that the literature has yet to answer. The paper must include 15-20 academic citations to ensure that the students have engaged reasonably well with the literature. Based on this background paper, students write the second paragraph of their introduction. Students turn in turn in a revised first paragraph, their new second paragraph, and the new 4-5 page background paper.
- Professor gives detailed feedback on the first two paragraphs of the introduction. More general writing comments are given on the background paper. Substantial comments are often given on the content of the background paper as students struggle to understand what a research question really is and how one establishes such a question.
- After students receive feedback, at least one and often more discussions occur in the following classes on what it means to establish a research question.
- Based on feedback, students rewrite their second paragraph, often after doing substantial new literature review. Students also write a new third paragraph in which they suggest the methods they would use to answer their research question and hypothesize their results. As the students do not actually do the research, this paragraph is more of a fun assignment in which they can use their imagination. Students turn in revisions of their first two paragraphs plus their new third paragraph.
- Professor gives detailed comments on the 3 paragraph introduction.
- As the paper is due before the end of the semester, one or more additional class discussions occur on the overall writing experience.
- In some iterations of the class, students also peer review each others papers.
In using this format over the past 3 years, I have found the following advantages and disadvantages:
- The short format allows me to carefully read every word and sentence and provide detailed comments on what worked for the student, what didn’t, and what should be considered in the future to improve the work.
- The iterative process allows (i.e. forces) students to carefully consider my comments and make changes based on them. I find this a major improvement over the typical process in which I write on the papers and am not sure that the comments are even read. The iterative process also encourages in class discussions on both writing and content.
- I set the assignment up in part to to emphasis the difficult to grasp concept of a research question. I find that focusing on the question through short iterative writing, rather than jumping into an attempt at an answer, helps students grasp the idea. In my experience, the importance of purposefully developing this skill of crafting a research question cannot be underestimated. As an example, many students in my senior seminars and those applying to do honors theses do not know what a research question is. The assignment could of course be changed to emphasis other content areas.
- Because the students spend so much time on each paragraph based on feedback and discussion, and because they have carefully thought through an actual research question, they often use their work from my class in their applications for research-based scholarships and other opportunities. In some cases they use their actual work from my class in their applications. In others, they choose new topics but model their proposals on their 3 paragraph introductions.
- While I do grade each iteration of the assignment, I have found it difficult to develop rubrics to fairly differentiate students and their efforts, especially as the papers improve over the course of the semester.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE ASSIGNMENT PROVIDED TO STUDENTS IN THE CLASS SYLLABUS
Research paper introduction and lit review
The main product for the class is the introduction to a research paper and the supporting literature review. YOU DO NOT ACTUALLY DO THE RESEARCH OR WRITE A FULL PAPER. The product will be accomplished through 6 relatively short, interconnected writing assignments. Due dates for each assignment are given in the schedule. The assignments have three main goals beyond learning about water. The first is to help you learn the difference between research and reporting/advocacy/argument. The second is to help you learn how to construct a strong opening for the many papers you will have to write at Georgetown and the rest of your life. The third is to learn how to do a literature review either for a research paper or to establish the evidence base for decision making.
A good introduction to a research paper can be as short as 3 paragraphs. It requires convincing people that your issue is important (paragraph 1), explaining what information gaps are still out there (paragraph 2), and demonstrating that your paper will at least partially fill one or more of those gaps (paragraph 3). Writing paragraph 2 requires understanding the literature that has already been published. More explanation and discussion will occur over the course of the semester, but for now note that you will be asked to write and rewrite the paragraphs of your introduction as we move through the semester. Rewriting (again and again) is the key to a good paper.
The assignment has 4 main goals:
- Learn more indepth information about an aspect of the class that interests you,
- Learning the difference between research and reporting/advocacy/argument.
- Learning how to construct a strong opening for any academic paper
- Learning how to conduct a literature review either for a research paper or to establish the evidence base for decision making.
All assignment must be turned into Canvas.
Part 1: Paper Title (0%) Provide a title for you paper in the form of a question. You can change the title every time you turn in your paper. While you get no points for doing this, you still lose 1% of your total grade for everyday the title is late.
Part 2: Background to the topic (5%) You need to make sure your topic is interesting andrite a paper of approximately 4-5 pages describing what your topic is and why the reader should care about it. You must cite at least 10 works. Citations may come from academic literature, but for this part of the assignment they may also come from popular press.
Part 2: First paragraph to the introduction (10%) What is the paper about and why is it worth reading? Writing a good introductory paragraph requires an ability to convey an overall understanding of the issues and how they fit into the reader’s world. It establishes whether the reader wants to continue reading your paper and sets the stage for the work you will do. The introductory paragraph may include citations from popular press, academic articles, or both.
Part 5: First two paragraphs of your paper 5%
Part 6: Full introduction including paragraph on how you will fill the gap (3 paragraphs) 5%
All assignments must be emailed to me by 8am on the day they are due. Your file must be named INAF100_LASTNAME_#, where LASTNAME represents your family name and # represents the assignment number
How to do citations in this class
Like this: “Giordano (2015) believe that ….,”
or like this: “Some researchers (Giordano, 2105; Byman, 2016) believe that…”
In your bibliography, for all academic articles, use one of the automatic formats provided by GoogleScholar, e.g.:
Wolf, A. T., Yoffe, S. B., & Giordano, M. (2003). International waters: Identifying basins at risk. Water policy, 5(1), 29-60.
Do not use footnotes or endnotes to cite sources.
If you do not cite as instructed, your assignment is automatically reduced by one letter grade.
Part 4: Justifying the research question/gap (2-4 pages) 15%
Part 3: Revised first paragraph to the introduction, second paragraph to the introduction, and literature review (20%)
A research paper requires an original research question or the establishment of a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. To be credible, you must convince the reader that you are aware of what is already known by doing a literature review and articulating it to the reader. For this class, the literature review must include AT LEAST 20 ACADEMIC articles. Can you include non-academic articles? YES. Do you still need 20 academic articles? YES.
You must organize your literature review using a typology (method for classification) that you create. In other words, don’t discuss the articles one after the other. Instead, organize the ideas in each article according to concepts you define as important. Don’t write, “Johnson (2015) says this. Smith (2013) says that.” Instead write, “The literature on water and conflict is divided into two camps. The first camp (Jones, 2013; Smith, 2015) highlights that increased scarcity will inevitably lead to increased social tensions. The second camp (Wight, 2010; Billinglea, 2012) highlights that increased scarcity induces the creation of new institutions to mitigate scarcity’s impact.” You might then explain specifics of some of the authors, but the organization (typology) is generally by concept, not author.
You must define the concepts (typologies) in the way that makes sense to your project and the academic fields from which you are drawing. For this assignment, the typology should be clearly labeled by creating sub-headings in the literature review section. You must also provide a summary of the literature review at the end of the section that leads the reader to understand what the research question/knowledge gap is that your project (if you were to actually do it) would attempt to address.
This assignment should be structured like this:
Title (edited version of what you already produced for Parts I and II)
First Paragraph (edited version of what you already produced for Part II)
Second Paragraph (summarizes for the reader the knowledge gap that you identify in your literature review and that your research would fill if you were to actually do it).
How long should a literature review be? There is no clear answer, but probably 5 or so pages. A literature review in a journal like Science might be one or two paragraphs. A literature review for a PhD thesis might be one or more chapters.
It is important to note that the literature about your topic does not have to be specifically about your PARTICULAR topic. Good research draws on theory, not just subjects. If you want to write a paper on whether Bangladesh and India are going to fight over the Ganges, you don’t want to only look at the literature on India, Bangladesh and the Ganges. You might also, for example, want to consider the literature on theories of international conflict and then try to apply those to the case of India and Bangladesh and their shared river.
Part 4: Full introduction and literature review (20%)
For the final assignment, turn in a three paragraph introduction and literature review. Format you paper in the style of one of the papers you cite in your literature review.
The assignment should be structured like this:
Title (edited version of what you already produced for Part III)
Abstract (100 words or less)
First paragraph (edited version of what you already produced for Part III)
Second paragraph: edited version of what you already turned in for Part III)
Third paragraph: How your project would fill answer the question/fill the gap and what it concludes (you hypothesize the conclusion)
Literature Review (edited version of what you already produced for part III)
Screen shot of the first (and possibly other) pages of article whose format you are copying.